Students can use their current work as part of their studies, or use their studies to explore ideas and skills that they have been unable to explore as part of their role.
The course requires self-discipline and motivation, and I look for evidence of that in the application process. You will be communicating regularly both with myself and other students on both the distance learning and ‘with attendance’ versions of the course, so there will be plenty of support, but like any Masters level course you will be expected to learn independently with guidance to develop your own areas of expertise.
I’ve actually been teaching the distance learning version of the course since last September, but hadn’t publicised the fact (I wanted to ‘soft-launch’ the first year with a small group first, and use agile principles to continue to develop it).
I’ll be blogging further about how the distance learning course has changed how I teach the MA as a whole, and changes in education more generally, but that’s for another post. In the meantime, I’m particularly welcoming applications from individuals with good experience as a working journalist, or as a web developer, or who are running or considering launching their own journalism enterprise.
One of the problems in teaching online journalism is that what you teach today may be out of date by the time the student graduates.
This is not just a technological problem (current services stop running; new ones emerge that you haven’t taught; new versions of languages and software are released) but also a problem of medium: genres such as audio slideshows, mapping, mashups, infographics and liveblogging have yet to settle down into an established ‘formula’.
In short, I don’t believe it’s wise to simply ‘teach online journalism’. You have to combine basic principles as they are now with an understanding of how to continue to learn the medium as it develops.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Universities Without Walls‘. At its heart was a belief that community is an asset for news organisations, and reputation in at least one community is an asset journalists should be actively cultivating.
The first assignment is a Community Strategy Analysis (you can read the brief here). This was given to students across the 8 Masters degrees at City University. They are required to identify a community that they can join and contribute to, with the objective of becoming a better journalist as a result (because they will have access to a wider range of sources, and sources will have access to them, they will build a diverse distribution network, and most of all they will have built reputation and relationships that form the basis for all the above)
The other assignment was given to Birmingham City University MA Online Journalism students last week. This is a Communities of Practice assignment, where students are asked to join groups of practitioners (e.g. online video makers; data journalists and developers; podcasters; and so on) to improve their multimedia journalism, contribute to the field, and build support networks for ongoing skills development.
Here’s what I’m learning so far.
I have to explain why community matters
The vast majority of my work with the City University students has been cultural. The idea of ‘the audience’ is so persistent, so resistant, that it takes a huge amount of work to unpick.
We are so precious about ‘our’ journalism, it seems, that we will do anything but let other people into it. More worrying, we seem to see journalism as either a glamorous profession, or a paternalist one. ‘Public interest’ is ‘our interest’; the ‘public sphere’ is ‘our sphere’.
Students understand the importance of building a network of contacts; they understand why they should make themselves contactable; and they are happy to get involved with distributing content online. But many expect all this to happen without building relationships. Some, indeed, worry about this being a “waste of time”.
I’m not sure whether this is a result of news organisations increasingly becoming content factories, or whether aspiring journalists have always expected ‘being a journalist’ to mean that the hard work of building relationships had already been done for them by the newspaper and their predecessors. It might be an inherited cultural attitude that sneers at readers. It could be all of the above, or none of those reasons. Whatever the reasons, I find it rather depressing that the communities we are supposed to serve are often seen as something we cannot be bothered with.
Common misunderstandings about community
At the module’s midway point I asked students to submit a draft of their community strategy so that I could make sure they were on the right track. It was a useful exercise in what you might call ‘Agile’ teaching – it allowed me to pull out some common misunderstandings and correct them. Normally this doesn’t happen until you’ve taught a module for the first time, and adapt it for the second and third times.
One recurring problem was students being too focused on content, or community, rather than both. The content-centric strategies started with what they were going to do – write a blog, etc. – and then positioned the ‘audience’ as a compliant distributor and contributor, with little thought around why they would do that.
The strategies that were too focused on community failed to identify the journalistic objectives that should remain important. The journalist was left helping a community, but without necessarily playing to their own journalistic strengths of communication and investigation.
Two key questions to ask were illustrated by one particular student, whose draft contained a brief section titled ‘What do I have to offer them?’ and another titled ‘What do I get back?’. Addressing both questions ensures the project is balanced.
A good strategy is specific – but too many failed to specify what they were going to do to stimulate interaction. Exceptions included one student who noted that many successful blog posts ended with an open question; and another who identified the questions that she would use to stimulate debate.
Finding the community at all was a problem for some, a problem which came down to their search techniques. There’s plenty of advice on this, from the search engines you use to the phrasing, but the key issue is to imagine what your community is saying, not who they are: so don’t search for “twins”, search for “my twin sister” because that’s the sort of thing that only a twin is going to say.
How do you measure success? Many students saw volume as the key, aiming for round numbers of followers on Twitter, fans on Facebook or hits on their blogs. But engagement would be a much more relevant metric: how many comments do you want? How many @ messages, or even retweets?
Other problems including not looking at what else there was serving that community, and why it was successful, or trying to compete with it instead of working with it. If your community is mothers then best to build a reputation on Mumsnet instead of trying to beat it.
The three assessment criteria, then, are: research; creativity and viability; and analysis. So as long as the student’s community strategy is based on research, and they critically analyse the results, that is A Good Thing. This is Masters level education – they should be learning something from their work, and yes, that means being prepared to fail. The assessment of creativity is aimed at both ensuring that taking big risks is encouraged, and that creative and effective executions are also rewarded. Few things depress me more than a student who is afraid to learn anything because they might lose marks.
Communities of practice
The assignment for MA Online Journalism students is different. It is an acknowledgement that in a field like online journalism, where technology and knowledge is evolving all the time, Masters level education means having the professional contacts that allow you to remain at the forefront of the field in 2 or 5 years – not just in 6 months.
There are many similarities with the other assignment: the focus is on building relationships, and contributing something to the wider community, rather than just taking from it. The difference is that the objective is skills-based, not story-based.
One of the key features of education is what you learn from the people around you – not just the person lecturing you. That’s why e-learning has failed to take off in quite the same way as expected, and why the Open University still does it so well (they recognise that it is about more than content).
Having a ‘university without walls’ where students learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it is a key development in this respect. And as lecturers we need to help make that happen.
This post forms part of the Carnival of Journalism, whose theme this month is universities’ roles in their local community.
In traditional journalism the concept of community is a broad one, typically used when the speaker really means ‘audience’, or ‘market’.
In a networked age, however, a community is an asset: it is a much more significant source of information than in other media; an active producer of content; and, perhaps most importantly, at the heart of any online distribution system.
You can see this at work in some of the most successful content startups of the internet era – Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, Slashdot – and even in mainstream outlets such as The Guardian, with, for example, its productive community around the Data Blog.
Any fledgling online journalism operation which is not based on a distinct community is, to my thinking, simply inefficient – and any journalism course that features an online element should be built on communities – should be linking in to the communities that surround it.
Teaching community-driven journalism
My own experience is that leaving the walls of academia behind and hosting classes wherever the community meets can make an enormous difference. In my MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, for example, the very first week is not about newsgathering or blogging or anything to do with content: it’s about community, and identifying which one the students are going to serve.
To that end students spend their induction week attending the local Social Media Cafe, meeting local bloggers and understanding that particular community (one of whom this year suggested the idea that led to Birmingham Budget Cuts). We hold open classes in a city centre coffee shop so that people from Birmingham can drop in: when we talked about online journalism and the law, there were bloggers, former newspaper editors, and a photographer whose contributions turned the event into something unlike anything you’d see in a classroom.
But I’ve also come to believe that we should be as flexible as possible about what we mean by community. The traditional approach has been to assign students to geographical patches – a relic of the commercial imperatives behind print production. Some courses are adapting this to smaller, hyperlocal, patches for their online assessment to keep up with contemporary developments. This is great – but I think it risks missing something else.
One moment that brought this home to me was when – in that very first week – I asked the students what they thought made a community. The response that stuck in my mind most was Alex Gamela‘s: “An enemy”. It illustrates how communities are created by so many things other than location (You could also add “a cause”, “a shared experience”, “a profession”, “a hobby” and others which are listed and explored in the Community part of the BASIC Principles of Online Journalism).
As journalism departments we are particularly weak in seeing community in those terms. One of the reasons Birmingham Budget Cuts is such a great example of community-driven journalism is that it addresses a community of various types: one of location, of profession, and of shared experience and – for the thousands facing redundancy – cause too. It is not your typical hyperlocal blog, but who would argue it does not have a strong proposition at its core?
There’s a further step, too, which requires particular boldness on the part of journalism schools, and innovativeness in assessment methods: we need to be prepared for students to create sites where they don’t create any journalism themselves at all. Instead, they facilitate its production, and host the platform that enables it to happen. In online journalism we might call this a community manager role – which will raise the inevitable questions of ‘Is It Journalism?’ But in traditional journalism, with the journalism being produced by reporters, a very similar role would simply be called being an editor.
PS: I spoke about this theme in Amsterdam last September as part of a presentation on ‘A Journalism Curriculum for the 21st Century’ at the PICNIC festival, organised by the European Journalism Centre. This is embedded below:
Her experiences of local government here – and of local journalism – have left her incredulous. Since arriving Hedy has attended every council meeting – she notes that reporters from the BBC and ITV regional news do not attend. Her attempts to get responses to stories from elected officials have been met with stonewalling and silence.
This week – after 7 weeks of frustration – she discovered that the council had called a news briefing about their business plan for consultation with the public on how to cut £300 million in spending – and failed to tell her about it, despite the fact that she had repeatedly requested to be kept informed, and was even stood outside the council offices while it was taking place (and asked directly why TV crews were being waved in):
“At first, [the head of news] told me that it wasn’t a news conference but “a small briefing of regional journalists that we know”. [She] described them as five people, “local, traditional journalists” who were on her “automatic invite list”. She said they were journalists that the press office has been talking to about all aspects of the budget cuts and have “an understanding of the threads of these stories”.
“She also said they were journalists who have talked to Stephen Hughes before and “know where he is coming from”.”
On the other side are press offices like Walsall’s, which appear to recognise that the way that blogs use social media allow the council to communicate with larger, more distributed, and different audiences than their print counterparts.
The issues for balanced reporting and public accountability are well illustrated by Hedy’s experience of calling the press office seeking a quote for a story:
“[I] was told that Birmingham councillors are “important people” (I don’t know what that implies about “the public’s right to know”) and was told to simply write no comment. The refusal by the press office to deal with us has made it exceedingly difficult to cover all sides of the story on our website.”
In contrast Hedy details her experiences in Canada:
“City Council meetings are considered a valuable source of news and attended by most of the local media and not just two print reporters, as they are in Birmingham. Interested citizens show up in the gallery to watch. Council meetings are broadcast live and journalists who can’t attend can watch the proceedings on television along with the general public.
“It is acceptable behaviour to walk up to a politician with your camera rolling and start asking questions which the politician will then answer. If politicians are reluctant to answer questions they are often “scrummed” and wind up answering anyway.
“When major budget announcements are made by the federal government, politicians at every other level of government, as well as interest groups, hold news conferences to provide reaction. Quite often, they go to the legislative chamber where the announcement is being made to make themselves more readily available to journalists (and, of course, to spin).”
Have you experienced similar problems as a journalist? Which local authorities deal well with the online media? I’d welcome your comments.
UPDATE: A response from Birmingham City Council comes via email:
“A Birmingham City Council spokesperson said: “We have proven that Birmingham City Council takes blogging and citizen journalism seriously through the launch of the award-winning www.birminghamnewsroom.com online press office.”"
UPDATE 2 (Dec 16 2010): Sarah Hartley writes on the same problem, quoting some of the above incidents and others, and suggesting press offices confuse size with reach:
“Let the recently published London Online Neighbourhood Networks study enter the debate. It asked users of the citizen-run websites to identify what they regarded as their main source of local news. The result: 63% of respondents identified their local site as their main source.”
Last week I spent a day playing with the screen scraping website Scraperwiki with a class of MA Online Journalism students and a local blogger or two, led by Scraperwiki’s own Anna Powell-Smith. I thought I might take the opportunity to try to explain what screen scraping is through the functionality of Scraperwiki, in journalistic terms.
The ‘breadth portfolio’ was only worth 20% of the Multimedia Journalism module, and was largely intended to be exploratory, but Alex Gamela used it to produce work that most journalists would be proud of.
Firstly, he worked with maps and forms to cover the Madeira Island mudslides:
“When on the 20th of February a storm hit Madeira Island, causing mudslides and floods, the silence on most news websites, radios and TV stations was deafening. But on Twitter there were accounts from local people about what was going on, and, above all, they had videos. The event was being tagged as #tempmad, so it was easy to follow all the developments, but the information seemed to be too scattered to get a real picture of what was going on in the island, and since there was no one organizing the information available, I decided to create a map on Google[ii], to place videos, pictures and other relevant information.
“It got 10,000 views in the first hours and reached 30,000 in just two days. One month later, it has the impressive number of 77 thousand visits.”
“My goal was to understand the relative and proportional position of each one, regarding visits, page views, and how those two values relate to each other. The data I got also has portals, specialized websites, and entertainment magazines so it has a broad range of themes (all charts are available live here – http://is.gd/aZLXs)”
All of which was produced and submitted within the first six weeks of the Multimedia Journalism module.
The other 80%: multimedia archive journalism
Alex was particularly interested in archive journalism and using multimedia to bring archives to life. As a way of exploring this he produced the Paranoia Timeline, a website exploring “all the events that caused some type of social hysteria throughout the world in the last 20 years.
“Some of the situations presented here were real dangers, others not really. But all caused disturbances in our daily lives … Why does that happen? Why are we caught in these bursts of information, sometimes based on speculative data and other times borne out of the imagination of few and fed by the beliefs of many?”
The site – which is an ongoing project in its earliest stages – combines video, visualisation, a Dipity timeline, mapping and the results of some fascinating data and archive journalism. Alex explains:
“The swine flu data came from Wolfram-Alpha[vi] that generated a rather reliable (after cross checking with other official websites) amount of data, with the number of cases and deaths per country. I had to make an option about which would be highlighted, but discrepancies in the logical amount of cases between countries made me go just for the death numbers. The conclusion that I got from the map is that swine flu was either more serious or reported in the developed countries. Traditionally considered Third World countries do not have many reports, which reflect the lack of structures to deal with the problem or how overhyped it was in the Western world. But France on its own had almost 3 million cases reported against 57 thousand in the United States, which led me to verify closely other sources. It seems Wolfram Alpha had the number wrong, there were only about 5000 reports, which proves that outliers in data are either new stories or just input errors.
“For the credit crunch[vii], I researched the FDIC – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation[viii] database. They have a considerable amount of statistical data available for download. My idea was to chart the evolution of loans in the United States in the last years, and the main idea was that overall loans slowed down since 2009 but individual credits rose, meaning an increase in personal debt to cope with overall difficulties caused by the crunch.I selected the items that seemed more relevant and went for a simple line chart. My purpose was served.”
“Though the current result falls short of my initial goals,” says Alex, “it is a prototype for a more involving experience, and I consider it to be a work in construction. What I’ll be defending here is a concept with a few examples using interactive tools, but I realize this is just a small sample of what it can really be: an immersive, ongoing project, with more interactive features, providing a journalistic approach to issues highly debated and prone to partisanship, many of them used by religious and political groups to spin their own ideologies to the general audience. The purpose is to create context.”
The third student to catch the data journalism bug was Andy Brightwell. Through his earlier reporting on swimming pool facilities in Birmingham, Andy had developed an interest in the issue, and wanted to use data journalism techniques to dig further.
The result was a standalone site – Where Can We Swim? – which documented exactly how he did that digging, and presented the results.
Dan Davies explored video and mapping audio before catching the data bug – in this case, around cycling collisions. Like Caroline, he sourced data from a range of sources, including media reports, an RSS feed from FixMyStreet, another RSS feed from Google News, Freedom of Information requests – and getting out there and collecting it himself.
He’s visualised the data in a range of ways at Birmingham Cycle Data, using tools such as Yahoo! Pipes and ManyEyes, and collaborated with cycling communities too. The results provide a range of insights into transport issues for cyclists: Continue reading →